Second Christmas Treebysr71plt©
Viv reached for the phone. It was the first time today that it had been quiet in the house. Both Travis and Katie were down for their naps.
She had intended to call her parents, but the number she instinctively punched in was that of her agent. She knew she shouldn't be bugging Angela, that Angela told her she's learn something just as soon as Angela heard something, but Viv was so, so very close to the end of her endurance, not to mention her savings. The phone rang but no one answered.
Viv's hand was shaking as she put the receiver down, and she had to hold the coffee cup with both hands to get it to her mouth without spelling it down the front of her blouse. Maybe a couple of more swallows and she'd build up the courage she needed to try calling her parents again.
It was almost Christmas. It was crushing that she hadn't talked with her parents since September and that she may not see them during the holidays. Christmas had always been a family time. It was mostly her fault, yes, but her mother was so stubborn about this too. She'd never liked Rob and said he'd leave Viv someday. They'd had that big fight over that. And, of course, her mother was right; Rob had walked out on Viv. But that wasn't all. Her parents had never supported Viv in her dream—to be a published novelist. Her mother had told her once, when Viv and Rob had had a crockery-against-the wall fight, that Viv and the kids were always welcome to come home—but only if Viv gave up on her writing and got a job that would help pay the added bills.
Viv couldn't give up her dream; she was her mother's daughter as far as stubbornness went. She thought it was the only thing left that gave her life value.
Feeling a little steadier after several gulps of coffee, Viv reached for the telephone again, but Travis picked just that moment to wake up and start fussing—and, of course, his fussing wakened Katie as well.
Viv's hand wavered over the telephone receiver, and then she sighed and stood up and opened the kitchen cupboard. The moment of almost courage was past. The cupboard didn't give her any cheer either. Poetic versions of "but the cupboard was bare" ran through her mind as she realized that after she'd fed the kids some lunch, they'd have to go off to the Food Lion if they were to get any supper. There weren't many more suppers that Viv could eke out of what was left in her bank account. Something was going to have to give soon. She'd have to go hat in hand to her parents and give up on her dream or check out whether she could get any writing done in a homeless shelter.
"Merry Christmas," Viv muttered to herself as she moved toward the bedroom and her real-world responsibilities.
* * *
At first, Viv thought the young woman was deranged. And that was all she thought she needed now—being accosted by a mad woman by the checkout counter at the downscale food mart while she was trying to shuffle store coupons and what little cash she had to bring them into the best balance she could while juggling two snuffling children. Today was turning out to be just perfect. Just what she needed to put her into the holiday spirit. Even on second thought, after the woman had introduced herself as Susan Someoneorother and was still just standing there hugging that box of sugar pop cereal, Viv thought she might be deranged.
"I'm sorry," the Susan person final said. "But I thought . . . I wondered . . . Oh, damn, I've never done this before, but I just wondered if there was anything I could do to help."
And then she just stood there, expecting Viv to take the next step, no doubt. Although, no, she didn't just stand there. She pushed the box of sugar pop cereal out at arms' length, and Viv's six-year-old daughter, Katie, snatched it and rewarded the young woman with a squeal of glee.
"I'll pay for it, of course," the young woman blurted out. "I just would like your little girl have it . . . if . . . if it's OK with you, of course. You'd be doing me a great favor. And if I could help you with . . ."
"Thank you, but . . ." Viv cut in as she started to reach over to take the box of cereal away from Katie. But she stopped with her hand wavering in midair. She couldn't do it. She just couldn't do it. She'd known the woman was following along behind them down the grocery store aisles, and she could understand now that the woman had seen how few items Viv had taken off the shelf and how desperately she'd looked through her fistful of coupons trying to match necessities with would she could stretch her money to cover. And she knew she had left the woman behind in the cereal aisle when Katie had put up that fuss about wanting a box of the sugar pop cereal and Viv had been forced to put it back on the shelf.
Viv wasn't the one to take charity—or even to acknowledge when she needed it. She had her pride; there wasn't much of anything else left for her to cling too. And of course she couldn't let the woman just give Katie that box of cereal. But Viv was at the end of her rope. She looked into Katie's excited eyes, and she just couldn't take that box of cereal away from Katie again. Even though it was just a box of cereal. But it was a box of cereal she herself couldn't possibly buy.
Viv solved her dilemma by slumping into her cart, practically into the lap of her toddler, Travis, who was sitting in the cart all wide eyed and just fixing to wail in complaint about the present Katie had gotten and he hadn't.
"Here, there are tables over there by the deli counter," Susan was saying as she reached out and held Viv, keeping her from falling into the cart. "Let's just sit over there for a minute and have a cup of coffee and talk for a few minutes. I need to talk with you, but I don't even know what to say."
For the next twenty minutes, Susan proved she didn't know what to say but that she had no trouble talking. She was babbling some sort of nonsense at Viv about needing to help her and the kids with some groceries, even though she understood how hard it was to accept help, but that she needed to do this for yourself. That she just couldn't sleep if she didn't know she'd helped. And at first she also was running off about red silk night gowns and Victoria's Secret and how that was not really her, not what she wanted at Christmas. But when she got over that confusing data dump and Viv had gotten a chance to pull herself together better, Viv started to believe that this Susan person really did want to help her. And then Viv started to just let it all pour out herself—it had been ages since she'd had a girlfriend of her own that she could just let it all out with. How her husband and left her and she was too scared and proud to contact her parents, and how close they were to losing the apartment and not having anything to eat, and how frightened she was that if she told anyone about it they'd take away her kids, and how tantalizing close she thought she was to selling a manuscript and pulling a fairytale ending out of all of this.
"I understand," Susan said at length. "You just need a little bridge going for you here. Please let me help a little. It would mean so much to me."
"I know I'm being selfish and stubborn," Viv said, her voice low and plaintive, as if she was trying to convince herself more than Susan. "But I have this dream of making it as a writer. It's the only thing I have left."
"Are you sure it's the only thing you have left?" Susan asked. She looked across the table at the beaming faces of two small children slurping on the boxed drinks Susan had gotten at the deli counter along with the coffees for Viv and her. Katie was still holding the box of sugar pop cereal close to her breast and, having followed Susan's gaze over at the kids, Viv wondered whether the sugar pops inside the box would be pulverized before they could get them home.
"You have them too," Susan said. "And of course you have to keep them with you. Just let me help a little. Just through Christmas. I'll bet you don't have tree for them yet, do you?"
"No," Viv said. "I don't have a coupon for one of those." They both laughed at that, Susan and little nervously and Viv a little bitterly. But then they heard the tinkle of happy laughter from Katie and Travis from across the table, happy because the adults were happy and everyone was getting along so well, and then Viv's and Susan's laughs became looser and more natural.
That's when Travis decided he needed a bathroom. Right NOW.
Susan said she'd wait there with Katie if Viv wanted to take Travis to the bathroom, and as Viv stood up, Susan asked, "By the way, you look familiar to me. Maybe we were together in school. What was your name then?"
"Rievers," Viv answered absentmindedly. "Vivian Rievers. I went to Peyton High. You?"
"No, I went to Stanley," Susan answered. "Guess we didn't know each other then."
Viv had left her purse in the flurry of activity in taking Travis off to the bathroom, and Katie didn't seem to notice as Susan stuck her hand into the purse and fished around for an address book.
When Viv returned, she had come to an acceptance of suspension of her pride, if only through Christmas. Susan was really nice, and she didn't seem half as crazy now as she had at first. Viv was already thinking how this scene would fit into a novel.
Viv agreed to another sweep through the store to triple what she had put in the cart the first time—enough to see the three of them into the New Year—plus a few Christmas season treats for the kids.
When they came out into the parking lot and approached Susan's small two-seater Miata convertible, Susan laughed at the prospect of getting the four of them and all of the groceries into the tiny vehicle. Viv didn't laugh, though. She instantly thought that this was where the dream would end, where reality set in and her brief escape from depression evaporated.
But then Susan reached into her purse and snapped open a cell phone and started punching numbers.
"What . . .?"
Susan held up a finger. "Hello, can you send a taxi to the Food Lion on 12th and Main? Oh, good . . . and, oh, do you have a van or SUV taxi you can send? That's right . . . Thanks."
"A van?" Viv asked. "Why a . . .?"
"I'm figuring all of us and these groceries and a Christmas tree won't fit in a regular taxi," Susan said.
Viv was speechless, but Katie's eyes got big and she started clapping her hands. Travis was much too engrossed with a candy cane to care much what the adults were talking about.
While they waited for the taxi, Susan said she had another call to make and, as she moved to the far side of the store façade and paced back and forth while having what obviously was a very serious phone conversation, Viv and Katie watched her anxiously, as if she was an apparition that would call out "December Fool" at any point and just disappear in a puff of smoke. Travis was totally engrossed with the delicious stickiness of his candy.
A couple of hours later, when Susan had helped Viv get a tree that was much too big for the apartment's living room up and trimmed with what Susan had bought at the Christmas store and shortly after Viv had gotten Susan to at least agree to come to a modest Christmas Eve dinner and bring her husband, Susan left all smiles and glowing. Then an overentertained Katie and Travis had voluntarily stomped off for naps that should have come a couple of hours earlier, and Viv was left alone. For the first time all afternoon the merry-go-round had slowed enough for her to take stock of all that had happened. And, as a result, her euphoria started to trickle down the dial again and the doubts began to seep in. She went over to the table by the door and picked up the mail that had come through the slot in the front door while she and the kids had been off on their fairytale buying spree.
She was so lost in thought that she didn't even look at the return addresses on the envelops as she opened them. So, she didn't notice either that she was opening a letter from her literary agent, Angela, or that a check floated to the floor as she unfolded the letter. She read the letter. And then she read the letter again. This was unlike any of the rejection letters she'd been receiving for months. Then she read the letter again, catching on for the first time that it referenced an advance check from a mainline publishing house for her latest manuscript. She looked around for the check and, not finding it in the envelop, scrabbled around on the floor until she found it. She had to check the number of zeros twice before she would accept what was written there. $20,000. She was holding an advance check for $20,000.
Tears came to Viv's eyes as she rose from the chair and stumbled toward the telephone. She had all the courage she needed now to call her parents.
As Viv moved toward the kitchen, however, the door bell chimed, and she instinctively swerved and looked through the small-paned windows running up beside the door before opening it. She couldn't believe it. Out in the hall, ringing her door bell were . . . both of her parents, her mother's arms full of wrapped Christmas presents and her dad struggling with an impossibly tall and full pine tree.
"What," she thought idiotically while laughing hysterically, "are we going to do with two Christmas trees?" as she fought with hands still clutching an advance check for $20,000 to unlatch the door. What a difference a trip to the grocery store made.